By Stephanie Sprenger
My family recently experienced an unusually relaxed, harmonious week. I’d like to attribute the shift to a stellar parenting course or to the fact that we’d all taken up meditation, but the reason was more sobering—my third grader had a significantly reduced homework load. Instead of the usual bundle of language exercises, reading log, and daily math worksheets, she was responsible for less than half of that. The difference was impossible to ignore.
Since my daughter started kindergarten, daily homework has been a part of our lives and, unfortunately, both she and I have come to dread it. While we enjoy the accountability of filling out a reading log (as we both love reading books), and we have fun with the occasional school project, the daily worksheets are time-consuming at best and stressful at worst.
When math worksheets were introduced in first grade, I was horrified at the amount of time I spent sitting at the kitchen table after school with an emotional six-year-old. Often, homework ended with both of us in tears and me uncorking my bottle of Cabernet, because, let’s face it, homework time had clearly become the new Happy Hour.
“That’s not the right way to do it!” my tearful daughter shouted. “You have to build a math mountain first!”
This kind of language barrier is one of my primary complaints about regular math homework. More daunting than the reality of a two-parent working home and not enough hours in the day, many of us simply don’t understand our children’s assignments. I have no doubt that today’s method of instruction is superior, despite the droves of angry parents protesting the “new math” and forming irate Facebook communities. But that doesn’t change my inability to grasp the techniques. Where we live, parents do not receive a comprehensive tutorial or webinar instructing them how to “make a ten” or avoid the outdated “carry the one” terminology. And my daughter can’t explain it either, which leads me to believe she shouldn’t be bringing it home.
Parents in our culture receive mixed messages about how we are to approach childhood; we exchange sentimental quips about how fast it goes and how we should savor every minute, and in the next breath we prematurely push our children to be responsible, work-driven mini-adults. When do they get to just be kids? With the metamorphosis of extracurricular activities into high-pressured endeavors, our children already enjoy far less unstructured time than their parents did. If they are supposed to be involved in competitive sports, foreign languages, musical instruments, and religious or philanthropic organizations, where is the time for family meals, relaxing with a good book, and roaming freely with their neighborhood friends?
Current research does not support a strong enough correlation between homework and academic success to make it worth the headache. When I consider the fact that my own daughter—who is a very competent reader and a good student—experiences anxiety about homework, I wonder what it must be like for others who have reading difficulties or special needs. Regardless of individual learning style and aptitude, there is too much pressure to excel, too soon. Perhaps children would feel more motivated and proud to complete occasional assignments and larger projects; homework could become more of a “grown-up” novelty rather than a constant source of resentment.
There are better ways to teach children responsibility and work ethic than daily homework in elementary school—they have their teen years to learn how to both pace and push themselves academically. It is more important at this age to develop a positive association with learning and school.
Children put in five full days a week at school, which is plenty of time for them to learn the academic skills they need. What they need after school, just like adults, is time to unwind. The insidious emphasis on perfectionism, discipline, and performance that homework reinforces has created a lack of balance, which is pushing many families to their breaking point. These are not values I wish to impress upon my children. At their age, I would much rather they embrace a slower pace that allows them to enjoy their lives.
Stephanie Sprenger is a writer, music therapist, and mother of two girls. She is co-editor at The HerStories Project and blogs at stephaniesprenger.com.
By Sarah Rudell Beach
When my daughter, now a second-grader, started Kindergarten, she rushed into the house one day after school and gleefully exclaimed, “Mommy, I have homework!” She proudly showed me her assignment, sat down to work, and felt so grownup.
When I explain a homework assignment to my tenth-graders, I don’t get quite the same reaction. Somewhere between Kindergarten and high school, homework seems to have lost its luster. But even so, the parents of these same students tell me that their children excitedly share stories about Henry VIII or the French Revolution with them after completing their nightly reading.
Children – from bubbly kindergarteners to slacking seniors – want to learn. And we all know they need to learn. Direct instruction and supervised practice of newly acquired skills in the classroom is an indispensable component of their education. Continued practice at home is a valuable opportunity to reinforce and extend their learning.
Homework, within appropriate guidelines, is a worthwhile practice even for elementary students. When it is not assigned simply to fill time (the dreaded “busy work”) and when students are able to complete it reasonably quickly—kids need downtime after school as well—homework can provide many benefits.
It gets parents involved. I’m on Facebook enough to see how parents struggle with understanding Common Core homework—I’ve had my own humbling moments of being unable to help my daughter with her second-grade math. But it is not about us teaching the math to them. It is about knowing what they are learning and what they are struggling with, and learning with them.
When our children get stuck, we are not going to have every answer for them, whether the issue is a new way to do addition or how to deal with not getting invited to a friend’s birthday party. What we can provide is our supportive presence and gentle advice: “Maybe you can talk to your teacher tomorrow and ask her to explain this problem to you.”
Research indicates that parental involvement and support is a crucial factor in children’s academic success. Signing those homework logs and checking off the math assignments allows us to stay informed of our children’s progress and, most importantly, lets our children know we value their education and their achievements.
It supports learning. Cognitive psychologists speak of a phenomenon known as the “spacing effect.” This well-documented concept means that learning is more durable, and less prone to being forgotten, if it is distributed, with several practice sessions spaced out over time. This is fancy-talk for the idea that “cramming” doesn’t work. High-quality homework helps students distribute their learning – they learn a new concept at school, practice with their teacher, and then move on to another subject, eat lunch, go out for recess, and then go to art class. Later that day, perhaps after dinner, they return to the concept, and practice it again. This act of retrieving the memory of the day’s lesson and reapplying the skills learned reinforces their new knowledge. When the teacher references it again in class the next day, their learning resurfaces more quickly.
It informs teachers of student progress. Homework is a core element of formative assessment, which informs us about progress toward a learning target. The homework that is returned the next day provides a teacher with valuable feedback—where does this student struggle when she needs to do this skill on her own? Quality homework supports more personalized learning. This is also why it is so important that children complete their homework assignments themselves.
It develops healthy habits. In addition to the knowledge and skills acquired, nightly homework helps children develop disciplined habits and routines. By the time they are in middle school, and certainly high school, students will have several classes’ worth of homework to balance. By starting our children with small amounts of homework—generally 10 minutes per night per grade—we help them develop the discipline they will need as they progress in their education. It’s the discipline we all need in order to set aside time for the important work that needs to be done each day.
Whether homework is met with joy or eye-rolling (and whether that’s from the kids or the parents), if it is of high quality, used to formatively assess student progress, and assigned in moderation, it is a valuable component of a child’s elementary school education.
Sarah Rudell Beach is a high school teacher, writer, and a mother of two. She is a contributing author to The HerStories Project and Sunshine After the Storm and blogs at leftbrainbuddha.com.